Friday 22 September 2017

What role does Upper House play in political landscape?

Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan

Q How long has the Seanad been in existence?

A There has been a Seanad since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Its main purpose was to act as a check on the powers and work of the Dail. But another key role was to ensure that Protestants did not feel totally excluded from the governing of the state.

A number of positions were given to representatives of the Protestant community. The most famous was poet WB Yeats, who spoke out powerfully about social issues such as the lack of divorce rights.

But when Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was elected in 1932, he soon lost patience with the Seanad for voting down legislation from his government. He abolished the Seanad in 1936 but brought it back in a much weaker form in the 1937 Irish Constitution.

Q How is it elected?

A The majority of senators -- 43 out of 60 -- are elected by TDs, city and county councillors and senators. That is why Seanad candidates frantically rush around the country after a general election (when some of them have lost their Dail seats) and try to meet as many councillors as possible to secure their votes.

Q What power does the Taoiseach have to select senators?

A The Taoiseach of the day has the power to nominate 11 senators. Although there was an expectation that this would allow people from outside politics to be brought in, most Taoiseach's nominees are failed general election candidates.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appointed Senator Ivor Callely after he failed to get enough votes in the Seanad elections and also failed to get elected at the general election.

Q How much are they paid and how much does the Seanad cost?

A Senators earn basic salaries of around €65,000. Around half of them have other jobs (given that the Seanad usually only sits three days a week), leading to accusations of "double jobbing".

According to the 2011 Oireachtas Commission Budget, the Seanad's 60 senators will cost €4.2m in salaries, and another €2.6m in expenses and allowances this year. The overall cost of the Seanad is estimated at €25m per year.

Q What about the university Senators?

A Although voters passed a referendum in 1979 to allow all graduates to elect six university senators, currently only National University of Ireland graduates and Trinity graduates can vote. That means those who attended institutes of technology or newer universities such as DCU and the University of Limerick cannot take part.

Environment Minister John Gormley announced plans to extend the right to vote in Seanad elections to all university graduates two years ago -- but nothing has happened since.

Q What powers does the Seanad have?

A Its powers are very limited -- leading it to be often branded a talking shop. Senators can propose amendments, reject or pass a bill. But it cannot veto a bill going through -- the Dail has the power to over-ride the Seanad's rejection of a bill.

And the Seanad cannot make any changes to a 'money bill' -- such as Budget-related bills.

Q How many attempts have there been to reform the Seanad?

A There have been 12 Seanad reform reports in the past 83 years, but the system has remained relatively unchanged. The most recent was an all-party group which was due to come up with a "consensus approach" for the reform plans. Nothing happened.

Before that, there was a 2004 Seanad reform report, which stated that the Seanad's distinctive role was unclear, and that the system of election diminished the public legitimacy of senators.

Q What was the most damaging event for the Seanad last year?

A Although senators passed crucial legislation such as the renewal of the state banking guarantee, the coverage of the Upper House was dominated by Senator Ivor Callely.

He was suspended for 20 days after a Seanad committee found he had deliberately misrepresented his place of residence as being in west Cork rather than Dublin for the purpose of claiming travel expenses.

Q Do other countries have two Houses?

A Yes, this is a common system worldwide with the concept being that an Upper House would act as a check on the power and work of a Lower House.

In Britain, there is Parliament and the House of Lords. France has a directly elected National Assembly of 577 members and a Senate of 321 members which is mostly directly elected.

Germany has a directly elected parliament (the Bundestag) and a non-directly elected Upper House (the Bundesrat).

Switzerland has a unique system of direct democracy where voters can regularly vote every year to decide important issues -- but it also has a directly elected national parliament and a directly elected council of state. The US also has Congress and the Senate.

Irish Independent

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